You Wanna Be In My Gang?
I would be the first to admit that I have somewhat difficult tastes when it comes to reviewing games, and it was with some disgruntlement that I installed the two discs of Gothic onto my machine. "I absolutely hate fantasy role-playing games", I mumbled to myself as the installation reached its conclusion and I started the game up. "I'm not going to enjoy this at all." How wrong I was. Gothic is a game that took me completely by surprise, in much the same way that Deus Ex did. I became so completely immersed in its intricately constructed fantasy world that I lost all track of time and ignored my body's pleas for food. The world in question is called Myrtana, and you assume the role of a convict thrown into a prison colony contained within a magical barrier. This work camp was founded after the land became ravaged by marauding orcs, and the prisoners interned there were to mine ore for the construction of new weapons to defend the kingdom. However, problems arose during the creation of the magical barrier and the mages who built it became trapped with the prisoners. Taking advantage of the fact that nobody could come within the barrier to collect the ore, the prisoners traded the vital resources with the king for food, drink, women .. anything they wanted. In-fighting soon drove the colony into rival factions though. The first of these, the Old Camp, was perfectly happy working with the king, exchanging ore from the mine for goods. Later a New Camp was formed by lawless thugs, while other prisoners claimed to be privy to strange visions and dreams and left to form their own settlement. The members of this Brotherhood worship an unknown entity called The Sleeper, which they are convinced is the key to their freedom.
When you first enter the game, the depth of the story is not immediately apparent. You are merely handed a sealed letter which you are asked to deliver to the mages within the colony, and off you go. You would be right for feeling daunted in the early stages, as you aren't presented with any options as such, other than to explore the vast landscape ahead. Getting used to the interface is the first major hurdle, and Gothic's control set is convoluted and crude. For some reason the developers decided to opt for an almost completely keyboard-based command system, and the only mouse control available is to rotate your character. Even the inventory forces you to use combinations of keys to shuffle items around - what's wrong with using a click-and-drag method of interaction? The controls almost ruin the start of the game, and a new player may be completely put off by this sloppiness as it renders Gothic an extremely tough game to get into. Having got to grips with the awkward controls and set off on your journey you come across a few weapons thrown aside - a pickaxe, a couple of rusty swords - and these come in handy for battling off your first threats, until later in the game when the opportunity comes to buy stronger weapons and armour. Unfortunately combat is also extremely clumsy. Fighting one opponent is hard enough, but when you've got three bloody huge bird-like creatures hopping around and pecking at you, you hardly stand a chance, particularly when you're weak and armourless in the early stages of the game. There are sidestep keys to aid you in dodging an attack, but having to use a combination of action and direction buttons to swing your weapon means that you are usually forced to stand still and flail your weapon helplessly in the direction of the advancing beastie.
Let's Be Friends
Once you get moving though and begin to take on tasks and missions from some of the many inhabitants of the camps, the control problems are overshadowed by a tremendous character-driven story. Your primary goal is to become someone of importance, and this involves influencing those in the right positions by fulfilling jobs and carrying out favours for them. These can be as mundane as searching for ingredients for a chef's broth or delivering a letter, but other characters you meet have more to offer and in return can train you in essential skills such as combat and thievery. All of the characters live in a hierarchy, or a network if you will, and by completing tasks for certain people or factions you may be stepping on the toes of someone else. Almost all of your actions have far reaching consequences, and gossip about you will spread beyond your control. Should you get caught stealing from someone's hut, for example, not only will you be beaten to within an inch of your life by the victim (who will then steal your precious ore and leave you to stagger away with a bloody nose) but people will soon start to distrust and even fear you. It becomes essential to build relationships and make friends and enemies if you are to progress.
Bucking The Trend
One of the most pleasing aspects of Gothic is the fact that it doesn't rely too much on established role-playing dynamics. Indeed it leans more heavily towards adventuring and exploration, which is why I could draw comparisons with the likes of Deus Ex rather than other more traditional role-playing games. There aren't huge swamps of statistics and fantastical mumbo-jumbo to wade through either; instead the emphasis is on actually getting into the role and immersing yourself in the world. Visually Gothic is a splendid title with just the right level of eye candy to stop you getting bored with the browns and greens of your medieval surroundings. The full day and night cycle and changing weather conditions combine well with the inhabitants' individual activities and the huge areas available for exploration to create a completely believable environment in which captives bed down in huts for the night or sing songs around campfires before setting off for a day's hunting or mining when the sun rises. The sound is of a lower standard than the graphics, but the music is pleasant and sits in the background nicely while the voice acting .. well .. it'll do. Gothic is a game which developers should look to as an example of how a role-playing adventure should be done. Floating on the surface of a deep storyline is a superb façade of light-hearted humour and adventuring, which is sure to attract less hardcore genre fans. The only real gripe is with the primitive interface, and had this received more attention it would have been a marked improvement on an already tremendous title.